The Gems of Gwalior
If you've chosen to travel by rail or road from Agra, 118km (73 miles) north, to Khajuraho via Orchha, 120km (74 miles) south, set aside a day to explore Gwalior's fine sights. To see them all necessitates an overnight stay in the palace that is part of the attraction and one of central India's best heritage properties.
Looming over the three cities of modern Gwalior -- Lashkar, Morar, and Gwalior -- its 3km-long (2-mile) thick walls built atop steep cliff surfaces, Gwalior Fort (Rs 100 entrance allows you into most sites, Rs 25 video; daily sunrise-sunset) is believed to date back to the 3rd century A.D. The oldest surviving Hindu fort in the Bundelkund, it changed hands repeatedly and was admired by all who invaded it -- even the first Mughal emperor, Babur, who admired very little else of India, famously described it as "the pearl among the fortresses of Hind" (though he still allowed his army to desecrate the Jain rock-cut sculptures, viewed as you approach the Urwahi Gate). Within the ancient walls are a number of palaces, temples, step wells, and underground pools (best to hire a taxi, available at the entrance), but its most significant structure is the monumental Man Mandir Palace, built by Raja Man Singh of the Tomara dynasty in the 15th century. Ornamented with a variety of glazed tile patterns, this is considered one of the finest examples of pre-Mughal Hindu palace architecture in India. Now housing a rather good Archaeological Museum (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm), Gujari Mahal was also built by Man Singh, this time for his favorite wife, a queen of the Gujjar tribe; he famously fell in love with her after he witnessed her courageously separate two warring buffaloes.
The oldest temple in the fort is Teli-ka Mandir, or Temple of the Caste of Oil Sellers, dating from the 9th century. Built in the South Indian, or Dravidian, style, it was originally dedicated to Vishnu before apparently being used as a soda factory by the British when they occupied the fort in the 1800s. Just north of here is a large pool of water known as Suraj Kund. It was here that a divine hermit named Gwalipa, for whom the fort is named, is believed to have cured the fort's founder, King Suraj Sen, of leprosy. Other notable temples are late-11th-century Sas Mandir (Temple of the Mother-in-law) and Bahu Mandir (Temple of the Daughter-in-law), which form an elegant pair. Guides hired at the fort should cost Rs 300 for 2 hours; Samar Singh (tel. 98-2623-0564) is a reliable choice -- his grandfather was the very first guide to work here.
The last rulers of Gwalior were the Scindia clan, and during the British era the Scindia Maharaja, Jiyaji Rao, was known to be one of the most decadent of the Rajput rulers. In 1875 he built the over-the-top 19th-century Jai Vilas Palace for the express purpose of impressing the Prince of Wales. He filled it with treasures imported from Europe; in the Durbar Hall are the world's heaviest chandeliers, each weighing 3 1/2 tons, which hang over the largest handmade carpet in Asia. In the dining room you can see the electric silver-and-crystal toy train the maharaja used to dispense drinks and cigars around the massive dinner table -- apparently refusing to stop the train in front of those he disliked. Jai Vilas Palace (tel. 0751/232-1101; Rs 200, Rs 30 camera; Thurs-Tues 10am-5pm) is still occupied by his descendants (if the flag is flying, royalty is in residence); there's also a torturous series of museum galleries filled with a mix of banal and unusual trifles. You might be shocked to see the collection of stuffed tigers and cheetahs labeled "Natural History Gallery."
Gwalior's has a long-standing tradition of musical excellence and innovation, and to this end Sarod Ghar traces and showcases this legacy in the beautiful sandstone home of the Bagnash family. You might inquire about the musical recitals occasionally held in the museum's marble courtyard (tel. 0751/242-5607; www.sarod.com; entry free; Tues-Sun 10am-1pm, 2-4pm); don't pass up the chance of hearing Amjad Ali Khan, an internationally recognized master. Or find out whether musicians are performing at the simple white memorial Tomb of Miyan Tansen. One of India's greatest musicians, Miyan Tansen was considered one of the navratna (nine gems) of Mughal Emperor Akbar's court. For recital information, contact M. P. State Tourism Development Corporation (tel. 0751/234-0370; email@example.com; open 24 hr.).
The best place to overnight is the Taj's luxurious Usha Kiran Palace Hotel (tel. 0751/244-4000; www.tajhotels.com), located right next door to the Jai Vilas Palace. Scindia royalty once resided here, and this handsome heritage hotel, extensively renovated in 2005, retains an evocative old-world atmosphere. Most accommodations (with A/C, TV, and minibar) are arranged around a courtyard and are tastefully furnished, with high ceilings, pleasant sitting areas, and furniture that once belonged to the maharaja. Of the massive deluxe rooms, 201 and 202 offer the best value (Rs 12,000 double). A stay here is definitely a taste of luxury, particularly if you stay in one of the fabulous villas added in 2006, which have private pools and smart designer interiors (from Rs 25,000). The hotel offers guests several royal experiences, notably at the gorgeous poolside spa; among the decadent offerings is a bathing ritual (Mangal snana) where you soak in a tub infused with rich traditional ingredients while live musicians play from behind a curtain. Around the hotel building, you'll discover broad passages, 51 differently designed sandstone trellises, ornate chandeliers, and an upstairs terrace affording views of Jai Vilas Palace and Gwalior Fort, ideal as a sundowner venue. If you do spend the night, you might want to watch the 45-minute sound-and-light show (Rs 150; tickets available at the fort; closed July-Sept 15) held at the fortress each night at 7:30pm November through February and 8:30pm March through October.